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April 25, 2005

  • If An eye Offend Thee…
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    Here's a helpful hint to the people who publish eye weekly. Hire me as a columnist.

    Well, maybe don't hire me per se—I mean how many TV reviews and nostalgic memoirs delivered late can an arts weekly take? But they need to hire someone to write a column and fast.

    eye is experiencing, in my view, a massive crisis: it's simply not interesting anymore.

    Once upon a time, when we were about to experience a first Clinton administration eye was the funniest, smartest, most obnoxious weekly free papers in the world. It was founded by media monolith Torstar to compete in the Thursday local publishing scene. In those heady days of 1992, there was one such paper doing the arts weekly thing and that was NOW magazine. Good old redoubtable, upper-case NOW. Always to the left of every issue. Always. Always crusading. Always railing against someone funky and always filled with serious content, for serious times.

    It was the most boring, po-faced excuse for a weekly paper on earth.

    I always felt duty-bound to read NOW since it covered all sorts of important hard-hitting leftist issues facing Torontonians and had some sort of hipster cred by focusing on the indie filmmaker/artist/actor/author (delete as applicable) du jour. However, at the end of the day, I wasn't interested in the films of Lars Von Trier, buying clothes from Courage My Love or getting judgmental about Bob Rae. The thing about NOW in the early ‘90s was that it was implacably smug and vaguely arrogant. Even when they were right—which I admit was, and still is, frequently—I kind of wish that they weren't.

    When eye jumped into this frey, they made an interesting decision. The Torstar-owned arts weekly—even if the ownership was strictly hands-off about editorial policy—-wasn't going to beat the independent defender of the underprivileged in Toronto by being more righteous (better to leave that to The Toronto Star). eye would, like now, cover the downtown stories that dropped off the radar of the Etobicoke-friendly Star. And they had the same politics, give or take. But eye had something in their arsenal NOW never had.

    eye was funny.

    In fact, eye was laugh out loud funny. From the cut lines of photos (often stock material from the ‘70s used to outrageous effect) that sent up the entire article it was a part of, to the film reviews that were as subtle as a shotgun blast, eye was all about that lovely British term, taking the piss. Make no doubt, their arts coverage was good anyway, and their serious city coverage was worthwhile, but eye's chief strength was that it didn't take anything, or themselves, too seriously.

    And when it came to their columnists, eye was, as they say, da bomb.

    In more ways than one. There were two columnists in particular who exploded on Toronto scene in those halcyon days, blowing everything away in a wake of silliness, satire, scathing critique and just plain silliness.

    Their names were Donna Lypchuk and William Burrill and to this day I covet their column writing abilities.

    Donna Lypchuk was a genius when it came to the art of the 500 word funny rant, and even better at the art of the 500 word memoir. She wrote columns about working for McDonalds as a teenager ("The arches rose like two mammaries against the sky of Brockville, Ont., as if inviting the hordes from the subdivision in the distance to come and suckle on the sweet mucilage of Thick Shakes, gummy cheese and sinuous Secret Sauce, the salty fries sprinkled with the vinegar of corporate kindness and Big Macs as soft and warm as Mouthfuls Of Mother's Bosom."), scientific enquiries into breakfast cereals (on Alpha-Bits: "Cereal consists of oat-based alphabet letters augmented by larger yellow, green and purple "marshmallow" letters. Letters look like they have been crafted by Salvador Dali. Intact letters are all captials. Box includes many mutant letters and examples of Japanese calligraphy."), polemics against the thieves who stole her bike. ("It was my Magic White Bike, and it will part by part make its way home to me. Yes, I believe that writing this is sympathetic magic, and because I have no sympathy for you. Consider yourself cursed, SCUM!") There were columns about local politics, there were columns about cultural icons, there were columns about her many neuroses. It's standard fare, but Donna Lypchuk made it screamingly funny and achingly real. The humour partially obscured the fact that she was one dark puppy—her column was not called The Necrofile for nothing.

    I don't think I've seen satirical invective flung with such power and accuracy. If I was pretentious I'd say she had Swiftian ability, but mostly I want to say that because she could write stuff that left the reader laughing uncomfortably while chilled by her actual intent. She wrote a column on Karla Holmolka (this in the days as the full horror of her complicity in several sex slayings of teenagers was just coming to light after months of the Crown were attempting to portray her as being a fellow victim) in the form of a multiple choice quiz:

    After moving in with your parents, your fiancé asks you to arrange for him to have sex with your 15-year old sister, stating, "Now that would be a good Christmas present for me!" Even though the idea hurts your feelings a little bit, what should you do? Should you ...
    1. Dump him for obvious reasons.
    2. Giggle and tell him to wait until she's a little older, because right now it would be statutory rape.
    3. Slip drugs into your sister's cocktail so she's easier for him to seduce.

    She followed that up with a quiz on "everyday Karla Holmolka-like dilemmas" where she pointed out even more dilemmas for a woman, who in her words, "feels that she is optionless yet somehow beyond the morals and common sense that apply to any man faced with a similar situation"; a position which no doubt split the opinion of the left-of-centre audience reading it.

    But that was Donna Lypchuk. She had a real Parkdale edge to her work that made her polarizing and compelling at the same time. For me, she was an older sister who was more worldly-wise and told better jokes than me. A small disappointment in my life has been that I've never been able to meet her.

    eye's other star columnist (pardon the pun) in those days was William Burrill. Burrill was actually brought in by Torstar to be eye's first editor and he hired Lypchuk and pretty much set the tone for the first five years or so. Burrill's own column, Naked Eye, was…well, scatological seems almost too polite; some of the most absurd bullshit ever written might be closer to the mark.

    It's hard to condense Mr. Burrill's peculiar genius into a single paragraph. His talent was in making just about anything funny. By that I don't mean Dave Barry, I mean what-the-fuck-was-that? funny. I used to read his columns out loud to my best friend back in the day. It was that good.

    I think the pinnacle of this style of writing, which might best be described as "if you can't write while drunk then fake writing like you're drunk", has to be a column titled "Life as a Bowling Ball, Believe It Or Not", from May 19, 1994, which begins thus:

    Once, not so long ago while I was living in Mexico, I suddenly began feeling depressed. I turned to a friend and said, "Carlos, I feel like a bowling ball."
    I don't know exactly why I felt like a bowling ball, but you can bet their was a lot of tequila involved.

    Later that night, I penned this poem while lying under the table in a cantina.

          My life
          Is like a bowling ball
          And black
          And full of holes
          And headed for
          The gutter

    As luck would have it, Carlos was lying under the very same table! He read my poem and said, "Guillermo, no. A bowling ball is a thing of beauty! It rolls along! It picks up speed! It racks up points! It shatters the obstacles of life and reaches its destination, always safely to return for another journey!"

    He went on like this for a while and I eventually had to stab him.

    This continues for another 600 or so words, taking in toxic metaphors, responses to threats (Fight, flight, shit yourself on the spot) and god knows what else. I'm not doing it justice at all so go look for it on google or archive.org or something (eye purged their archives ages ago). Suffice it to say: pure fried comedy gold.

    It is, of course, absolute bullshit. And, as with that sort of humour, a lot of it could be kind of tepid. But man, when it was funny, it was the funniest thing there. (And don't let me short-sell William Burrill's real skills as a serious writer. He was one of the first people to seriously research and write about Hemingway's career as a writer in Toronto in the 30s.) Plus, he kept running for mayor as a fringe candidate in city elections, most notably in the first Mega-City election of 1997. That Mel Lastman won says that the amalgamated city of Toronto has an even weirder sense of humour.

    The other, more serious, columnists of eye's first decade were just as good. For a while Greg Boyd had the best column on the Internet, anywhere; smart, not too geeky and examining the political and ethical implications of what was then a still emerging technology. They even syndicated Dan Savage first.

    The golden age of eye ended in 1998 when Torstar moved William Burrill back to the Star. He did a column in their What's On section but he was hamstrung by not being able to swear and being forced to actually make sense and he didn't last. He's doing serious critic-y things in the Saturday edition of the Star these days. What a waste of talent.

    Donna Lypchuk lasted slightly longer, though for reasons which elude me, she was cordoned off from the Op-ed pages and forced to live amidst the escort ads at the back of the paper. Her last column was without fanfare in June 2001. She sounded burned out and tired. I'm not sure how The Necrofile would have done in a post-9/11 world, but there were many times I wished she was back.

    For a long time, the closest we could get to the heights of a Burrill/Lypchuk rant was a funny and acidic bi-weekly column by Bruce LaBruce, which added an alternative lifestyle dimension to his predecessors. But that ended a while back. Now there are just columns filling a particular beat: Enviro (there since the beginning, sadly not with Bob Hunter), Gaming, City, Comics…but nothing just giving a general opinion, making fun of whatever. There's no good first-person columnists anymore at eye.

    But then eye seems to have become more sober since 9/11. Editorially, eye is much more about being serious and newsy for the downtown. Always to the left of every issue. Always crusading. Always railing against someone funky and always filled with serious content, for serious times.

    Being boring as hell, just like NOW was in the early 90s.

    I still pick up eye before NOW most weeks though I don't really know why anymore. It's become Pepsi to NOW's coke. Both taste, as Milo once said in Bloom County, like malted battery acid. Now I freely admit that the world is different than it was in 1992, but I can't help but think that by becoming as po-faced as its competition, eye is missing what made it great back in the day. Part of alternative values should be the ability to make fun of oneself and one's society. And to tell personal stories that are funny and chilling and motivating.

    So here's my proposal to eye: get me to write a column. Or if not me, how about getting in touch with Donna Lypchuk again? God knows, eye needs her now more than ever.


    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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